In this episode of the podcast, we’re talking about woodcock, Solopax minor, the premiere gamebird of the East Coast that is also a major quarry all the way to the Great Plains, and down into Louisiana.
Every episode of Hunt Gather Talk digs deep into the life, habits, hunting, lore, myth and of course prepping and cooking of a particular animal. Expect episodes on pheasants, rabbits, every species of quail, every species of grouse, wild turkeys, rails, woodcock, pigeons and doves, and huns. Thanks go out to Filson and Hunt to Eat for sponsoring the show!
Woodcock have held my imagination ever since I first heard about their European cousins, which are larger but otherwise the same. Woodcock are revered at the table in France and Britain, and are often roasted whole, with the innards inside (I don’t do that.) They are easy to pluck and beguiling on the palate — they taste like nothing else.
For more information on these topics, here are some helpful links:
- A good overview about the biology of the woodcock, from Cornell University.
- A primer on how to hunt woodcock by Project Upland with a dog… and without a dog.
- A video on the woodcock sky dance, as well as my all-time favorite woodcock video…
- Conservation information on the American woodcock.
I am bringing back Hunt Gather Talk with the hopes that your generosity can help keep it going season after season. Think of this like public radio, only with hunting and fishing and wild food and stuff. No, this won’t be a “pay-to-play” podcast, so you don’t necessarily have to chip in. But I am asking you to consider it. Every little bit helps to pay for editing, servers, and, frankly to keep the lights on here. Thanks in advance for whatever you can contribute!
As a service to those with hearing issues, or for anyone who would rather read our conversation than hear it, here is the transcript of the show. Enjoy!
Hank Shaw: Matt Soberg and A.J. DeRosa, Welcome to the Hunt Gather Talk Podcast. This is an unusual episode in that, neither of you guys are biologists and I obviously am not a biologist. So we’re going to kind of muddle our way through arguably the most iconic upland game bird, at least in the East of the Mississippi, and definitely in the Northwoods, with a possible exception of the ruffed grouse. Yes, we’re going to talk about worm burglars, the North American woodcock. Welcome guys.
Matt Soberg: Thanks, Hank, appreciate it. I am not a biologist, you’re right, but I like to call myself a bar stool biologist often, so.
Hank Shaw: And this is Matt, right? So definitely-
Matt Soberg: Yeah, this is Matt.
Hank Shaw: At the beginning, let’s just say, “Hi there, this is Matt”, and then once we get a little bit into the conversation, people will be able to recognize your voices.
A.J. DeRosa: Hi, this is A.J. Thanks for having me on, I’ve always been a fan of your work. And great to be on here with Matt, I have known Matt for a long time, learned a lot from Matt. So, definitely a cool opportunity, so thank you.
Hank Shaw: Well, tell us a little bit about yourself, A.J.
A.J. DeRosa: I’m the creative director of Project Upland, I’m from new England. I live up in the Hampshire right now, passionate hunter of woodcock. Where I live in this part of the country, the grouse population’s from essentially Central New England to Southern New England are pretty low, so woodcock fill a lot of gaps when you don’t want to make that two or three hour drive to get on grouse. So woodcock has certainly become kind of a cornerstone species for me. I chase them as far as Connecticut, I was hoping to chase them further this year, but with the state of the world, I’ve passed that off till next year, so.
Hank Shaw: Life in the time of Rona.
A.J. DeRosa: Totally.
Hank Shaw: All right, Matt, you and I have hunted together for woodcock and we’ll get into that in a little bit, but you’ve had a number of hats. You used to work for Ruffed Grouse Society, and you’re now the editor of Covey Rise Magazine, right?
Matt Soberg: Yep, that’s right. I edit, Covey Rise, before that I worked with A.J. for a while, and before that I was the editor and director of communications for the Ruffed Grouse Society for about seven years. And interestingly, when I was there, I helped RGS start the American woodcock Society, probably about four or five years ago now. So I live in the Northwoods, I can hunt woodcock luckily this time of year, 15 minutes from home. I love woodcock, I think they’re an underrated game bird for sure, and I’m excited to talk about them today.
Hank Shaw: I’m from New Jersey, so even though I’m 50 years old, I have the mind of a 12 year old, and when you said I love woodcock, all these jokes got into my head. So let’s just get this out of the way right now.
Matt Soberg: That’s hilarious. It should be on a t-shirt, I think
Hank Shaw: I bet it is, and if it’s not, I know Mahting Putelis from Hunt to Eat, I can make that happen.
Matt Soberg: There you go, I think you should.
Hank Shaw: So, okay, Scolopax minor, so that’s the Latin name of this bird. And Scolopax major is a European woodcock, which I’ve actually seen them in taxidermy and they are literally major, they’re about twice the size of our woodcock, they’re big old bird. So woodcock, yes, it’s an old name for it. You hear timberdoodle. My favorite, I heard this one from Bob St. Pierre from Pheasants Forever, he calls them worm burglars, I love that one. And I don’t know if I coin this, but I’d like to call them lumber dicks, just because it’s funny. And you guys say that you have heard any number of other names for this bird.
A.J. DeRosa: Oh man, Matt, I’m going to let you go first, because you’ve been hitting around this lingo a lot longer than I have.
Matt Soberg: I forgot a lot of them, a couple that come to mind, mud bat is used by [crosstalk 00:00:04:00], yeah, bogsucker is another one. And then, when I was hunting them down in Louisiana, the locals down there, the coon asses I guess, they’re they’re okay if you call them that actually, but they call them big bat birds-
Hank Shaw: Big bat birds.
Matt Soberg: Yeah, pretty funny. “You guys are going to hunt those big bat birds today,” is what they say.
Hank Shaw: I definitely want to talk about hunting in Louisiana when we get to it, because almost everybody thinks about hunting woodcock as a Northwoods thing, it’s the thing that you do when the tree peepers are out looking at the fall colors. And then, there’s this whole other culture of hunting them where they spend the winter.
Matt Soberg: Yeah, that’s right. They’re migratory birds just like ducks, and so it provides more of an opportunity on regionally to hunt them at certain times when they’re flying through, you can hunt them in their wintering grounds, way down south. There’s even opportunities in their fly over spots, in certain areas in Missouri, for example, you can hunt them as long as you time it right, so some people like to follow the migration and hunt on woodcock. And it’s not just like grouse just in the Northwoods only, you can do it in other places as well.
Hank Shaw: Let’s start with a little bit of the biology of this bird. So as we’ve alluded to in the funny names for it, woodcock are arguably the only game bird that we hunt, that there’s a few waterfowl that will make the exception to the rule. But other than… For sure, woodcock are the only upland bird that we hunt that has a diet virtually 100% of animal matter. They’re not obligate earthworm eaters, but earthworms are their primary prey, and that’s why they have that big long beak. And I’ve read any number of food habits studies of this bird, and millipedes, centipedes, bug larvae, they’ve even been known to actually eat vertebrates every now and again, there have been scattered reports since the 1930s of scientists finding bits of frogs, bits of very tiny salamanders in their crops and in their stomachs.
So they are interesting in the sense that, virtually all the other upland animals to begin with, whether the rabbits or squirrels or all the birds are seed eaters or berry eaters, and this is the only bird that isn’t. The upland birds separating away from the waterbirds in a sense, because snipe are primarily invertebrate eaters, and then there’s a number of ducks that are primarily invertebrate and fish eaters. But if you think about snipe, snipe is of course kind of a cousin to woodcock. And just like you said, Matt, bogsucker is another name for it, they live in wet places. So why do you guys give us an idea of, if you’re looking for woodcock, what’s the terrain you’re looking for?
A.J. DeRosa: I mean, on the take for New England, a big thing is always having an open area for birds to land, especially with the migration, but that can be a pretty small area, but anything that’s immediately wet, they’re not going to live in standing water per se, but I have certainly seen when the birds come back north in the spring time, we’ve gotten some heavy snows up here where a storm will come through and dump a foot, two feet of snow on the ground, and now what they’ll do is stand in brooks and feed that way if they have to. But that soft soil or rich and organic matter is a big thing. I actually have a buddy who works for MassWildlife and as a trapper who takes soil data, GIS soil data, and then wetlands data, and essentially overlays soil that’s rich in earthworms with moisture and essentially targets woodcock like that.
They like dense cover, so really anything that… The simple rule of thumb is anything that sucks to walk through, woodcock would probably interested in living there. But more recently, I’ve certainly found them a lot in almost like a, I guess you call it like a Pine Barrens, so soft covers or what you call a conifer cover, where it is immediately next to your thick wet areas, but they’re in the understory of that conifer because it’s really easy for them to walk. And so I’ve definitely seen that trend more, I’m by no means an expert, but definitely my dog has a nose that finds them, so it’s all the nose and these are the places we’re finding them, so.
Hank Shaw: What’s your experience been, Matt?
Matt Soberg: Yeah, that’s interesting. A lot the same honestly, they’re always looking for wet areas, soft loamy soils that are either within or next to heavy cover, just like A.J. said. And it’s interesting, depending on where they migrate or where you’re hunting in different regions, there’s little intricacies that are just a little different in every different place. In the Northwoods here in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, the easy one is to look for young timber cuts, oftentimes young aspen, that’s anywhere between probably three to eight, maybe 10 years old. It’s that super thick aspen that I mean, you couldn’t even throw a football through it. It’s so thick, and it’s oftentimes, and especially in the low bottoms, it has that soft loamy soil that you’re looking for.
And then like A.J. said, the conifer, that young conifer stands too can be good. I just hunted… The Minnesota Opener happened a couple of days ago, and I got a bird on Sunday, and it wasn’t in the aspen, it was actually in one of those small little conifer stands, and for some reason they weren’t even in the aspen at all, they were there. So the old saying goes that they are where you find them, but once you look for that soft loamy soils and the thick cover, you have a good shot at it.
Hank Shaw: I’ve had some experience in places like Missouri and such, which are more of, kind of popping spots. They stage up in the Northwoods all across the top of the country. Now let me stop for a second to just tell the listeners that, woodcock pretty much only exists from the edge of the great plains to Labrador. They’re an Eastern bird, they don’t live where I live in California, they don’t live in the Rockies, they don’t live really in the Great Plains at all, and they don’t live in the Desert Southwest. And they do get to sort of Eastern part of the Dakota’s, a little bit kind of sort of, and I have seen them in Missouri, and they exist in Eastern Texas in the winter time, but you’re really talking about a bird that’s, it’s the province of the East. I mean, the Midwest, sorry, I include in the East, because I’m on the other coast.
So you’re talking about all of the kinds of landscapes that are there. One thing I’ve noticed in the hopping states kind of when they’re on their way down to go to where they’re going is, they will be in a little bit more open area. I was foraging in Missouri in 2018, I was just looking for mushrooms because I had a day off, I was on book tour, and there was this wildlife area, it was perfect. Looked perfect for mushrooms, it was perfect weather and dah, dah, dah, and I’m walking the… And I swear to God there, I must’ve jumped 15 woodcock, and it was open-ish. I mean, you’re in the forest, but easy walking, I could’ve thrown a rock at them had I been able to see them beforehand. And I can only imagine that they were all there because probably nobody ever hunts them and they felt safer.
A.J. DeRosa: I’ve read something recently. We did a audio recording of the book Woodcock Shooting, which was written in 1908 by a gentleman Edmund Davis, a New Englander from Rhode Island originally. And there was a part in there that he wrote about, they were finding woodcock in the wide open and areas that had been burned, which I was just like, I mean, there’s some parts of that book where you’re reading it and you’re just like, “Wait a minute, what? It’s like, “I don’t know, I got to email a biologist and ask this question,” which I actually did do, but ironically, about a week after I had read it, I had a friend who was hunting, pheasant stocking site in the Hampshire, and they had done some burning in the area. And he said, when they were walking across this wide open burned area, they started flushing woodcock, it was just so weird that it was in the same week that I heard these things.
But apparently it’s a thing, from what I got for a response from a biologist is it had to do with exposing the under soil and an opportunity to essentially get to warm rich soil that had not previously been accessed, and also that the fire can bring the worms to the surface, so.
Hank Shaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I have heard that the drain after fire that brings the worms up to the top and they will turn that soil. So Matt, tell me about, what did it look like where you were hunting them down in the deep South in Louisiana?
Matt Soberg: Yeah. So I’ve been doing it for probably five or six years now. When I started, I actually started hunting in the Piney Woods of East Texas. And even there, the habitat is different than the Louisiana, so talk a little bit about both. When I started in East Texas in the Piney Woods, just like the name, there’s lots of conifers and pines and that type of tree growth there. And I had a hard time finding birds, I didn’t have a lot of help, and so I just kind of did it on my own and scouted it out and figured out that, by keying off the soil types again, on river bottoms and stream bottoms, where there was lots of vegetation, they don’t have the timber cutting like we do up here.
Anywhere there was wet soil next to some heavy vegetation, whether it was cane or ferns or plants like that is where we found them there. And then Louisiana is a little bit different. It’s wet just about everywhere in Louisiana, very swampy. The soil is perfect there, that’s probably why it’s one of their primary wintering ground areas. And it almost seemed like just about anywhere you went, again, connecting the dots between the wet soils and the heavy cover you found woodcock in Louisiana.
Hank Shaw: So it sounds to me… We’ll get into the hunting a little bit, but it sounds to me that Louisiana might be sort of the best kept not secret. I think everybody kind of knows that they’re all there, but I know exactly one Louisiana who hunts them. Now, I mean I’m sure there’s lots more, but it’s not a thing there, they’re all duck hunters there.
Matt Soberg: Yep, that’s right. And the locals don’t hunt them a lot, but the secrets getting out. I know it’s been a trendy thing to travel to the wintering grounds here, probably over the last up to eight years I would guess, it’s just a lot of uplanders trying to, what I say, prolong the season. I’ve got a lot of guys from maybe up here that our seasons are over, but you can still go and maybe hunt 30 days of woodcock down in the wintering grounds, and they’re trying to take advantage of it.
Hank Shaw: Any of you know what they do in the summertime? Where do they go? And what are they doing when we’re not seeing them on the migration?
A.J. DeRosa: Well, they come back North. So essentially, where places where like me and Matt live, we have what you’d call a resident bird, so they come to nest. And it is, and Matt correct me, I think he totally know this a little better, but I believe that sometimes after they nest they’ll actually move north again in some areas. This year, I actually had birds nesting in my backyard, which was super unusual. I know the population’s really up high in the Eastern flyway this year, but the whole idea is there’s this whole other kind of spring, summer aspect of woodcock culture. So they do this ridiculous kind of sky dance that people have come to know where people go out and watch them in fields. These male birds will display for these hands, and then they actually will strut around and fan out their little woodcock teeth as we call them, the tail of the birds, and put on this whole display, and eventually they’ll nest and whatnot.
But residentially for the summer, pretty much they’re staying in those areas, which again, I would think… And Matt, I mean, you probably know a little better, but I got to think there’s resident birds even in places as far south as Connecticut, and I know there’s some areas in Massachusetts for sure. And I mean, I have resident birds… I mean, I trained my dog starting late August on woodcock, where I live, so.
Hank Shaw: That is interesting. The very few migratory game birds that I’m aware of really actually do nest and spend their summertime in the U.S., almost all of them go to Canada somewhere. And I’m guessing there’s probably some that are in Ontario and Southern Quebec and that kind of thing, but they aren’t a real hardy bird. I mean, they don’t have a lot of down on them and they’re not super foofy. So, I mean, you’d imagine they wouldn’t be in say the boreal forest or the Tundra, so maybe they are a sort of our bird of the deciduous forest.
Matt Soberg: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think the majority of them probably migrate north of here. We do have a lot of what we would call resident or local birds that nest here as well. But we see the migration come through, and you can time it right in early to mid October when they’re migrating through, you know there’s a lot of birds that were north of where I live, and they’re coming through all during maybe a two to three week period, sometimes even shorter.
And so a lot of them go further north, but like A.J. said, the recent migratory woodcock research that groups like RGS and AWS are doing, they’re learning that there’s actually birds that don’t migrate as far north, maybe Connecticut, maybe Iowa even, they don’t go that far north, and actually they stay in those more southerly areas longer than we originally thought.
Hank Shaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s my impression that there really is no shortage of woodcock in the sense of, a lot of other episodes I do on this podcast, like sage-grouse or… I just talked to a fish and wildlife biologist about the interior population of band-tailed pigeons, and that one’s a complete unknown, where there’s cases where you almost have to justify sage-grouse hunting because there’s not that many of them, whereas I don’t get the sense that there really is any great conservation issue with woodcock. I mean, there’s obviously cyclical fluctuations based on any given year for weather, but they seem to be stable. Am I wrong?
A.J. DeRosa: Well, Matt obviously worked for American Woodcock Society and Ruffed Grouse Society, that’s how me and Matt met each other. I did a lot of film work originally before Project Upland had started, and through that kind of stuff and a statistic that I came across recently, and it was specific to the Eastern flyway, but I’m sure Matt can kind of fill in the gaps. It said that since we had started recording woodcock population since the 1970s, the population, the Eastern flyway, because there is technically… We make it an imaginary line, we say there’s an Eastern flyway. So New England down to anywhere from Georgia to even back over to Louisiana, and then the upper Midwest down to Louisiana, East Texas, the reality is research has shown that they do jump across these flyways, so it’s again manmade.
But this Eastern flyway has marked a 1% decline every year since they started recording it in the ’70s, so there is an actual issue. And Matt would be able to explain this way better, but this theory of, if you make it, they will come as far as habitat is concerned. And the biggest thing is, making safe stopover habitat essentially from where they nest in north all the way down to where they winter in the south is the major issue. And in certain areas, it becomes exasperated because of things like cities or even wind energy, stuff like that. I mean, not that I think that they’re getting taken out at mass quantities, but on that book, Woodcock Shooting that Edmund Davis looked, he talked about the atrocity of Telegraph lines killing these mass amounts of migrating woodcock, which is just so funny to hear. So, we have kind of our new version, whether it’s skyscrapers or windmills or whatever it might be.
Hank Shaw: I have heard about, and I’ve seen pictures of woodcock that brain themselves on skyscrapers in Manhattan, even.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. When I used to work in Boston, my office was on State Street, and I would find woodcock regularly dead during the migration that would hit the State Street Building, and just that’s it, they’d just be dead in the middle of State Street.
Hank Shaw: Wow. Of course you put them in your pocket and ate them for lunch, right?
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. I mean, of course I was the only guy walking by in a suit that knew what they were, would stop and be like, “Oh man, this poor woodcock.”
Hank Shaw: You shout on the corner of a busy Boston street, wood penis, and then you get arrested. So, okay, it’s an issue of habitat apparently, so what is declining that is causing them to decline? Do you know anything about this, Matt?
Matt Soberg: Yeah. A little bit to piggyback off of what A.J. was saying, I think part of the problem with maybe a misunderstanding of woodcock populations is, we think they’re stable maybe because we see a lot of them when we’re hunting, and they’re relatively easier to find in higher numbers once you figure out the whole game plan. So people think they’re doing okay, but the 1% per year stat that A.J. said, I believe is correct. And maybe 1%, you don’t think it’s that much, but if it’s consistent like that year after year after year, and it’s having a significant impact, and the woodcock population issue is a little more critical than maybe we originally thought.
So the reports are done all by the feds, because they’re a migratory bird, and that report comes out every year. Oftentimes it’s somebody posted on social media somewhere, so it’s easy to find. But federal fish and game, you can see the report every year. And I recommend anybody that’s interested in upland hunting or migratory birds, or woodcock hunting to check that out. It’s quite lengthy and very scientific, but it gives you an idea on woodcock population numbers and by region. And then also gives you a heads up on how critical habitat work is necessary for them. I think because they’re migratory to get back to your question, it just all comes down to habitat. We’re losing habitat in the North. We’re losing habitat in the South. We’re losing habitat in between just because we’re not scientifically maybe doing the forest management that we were doing many, many years ago. And so it’s affecting woodcock and ruffed grouse and cottontail rabbits, and many other species of wildlife, all the same.
Hank Shaw: What is disappearing that they need? Is it clear cuts? Is it thinning? Is it just woodlots in general. What is the habitat that they need that is disappearing?
Matt Soberg: I think it’s as simple as all of the above. Anything that’s going to create young forest habitat, early successional habitat in areas where they can find food. And the early successional habitat is where they need to hide from predators and areas where they nest and raise their young for protection in close proximity to food [inaudible 00:01:35]. I think they still use the same term healthy forests, forests with a wide variety of forest types and wide variety of age types from young forests to old forests. And unfortunately on like for example, the national forest in the East because of funding and other reasons they’re not even able to do the forest management to their minimum goals that they want to do. The result is these forests are just continually growing older and older and older to the detriment of all the wildlife we talked about before that require young forest to survive.
Hank Shaw: Funny side note. The only animal that I know of that really, really digs the old growth for us in the East, at least game animal, was the passenger pigeon and there aren’t any anymore. That’s one of the reasons why they thought that there were so many passenger pigeons when there were there was that we were cutting down the old growth forest and they needed that. And they were looking for more old growth forest. So they got into these gigantic flocks and everything else likes the middle-aged forest. So, that’s an interesting one. You had mentioned a second ago, Matt, that to escape from predators, what are a woodcock’s worst enemies? Who strikes to the heart of a woodcock?
Matt Soberg: That’s a good question. I think probably any airborne predator, hawk species. Then the ground predators as well. I’m assuming there’s some mortality from skunks and raccoons and any predators on the ground that find their nests and things like that. I don’t know if A.J has anymore ideas on that.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. I mean, I can ask similar to Matt. I don’t know if I’ve ever really heard kind of a strict culprit, but a unique thing about when they banned them. Cause woodcock like many migratory birds, they banned them for research. The woodcock, the hand will feign having a broken wing and fly way to draw the predator away. So that’s what happens when you bring pointing dogs in to find the nest, then the hand will get up, pretend like she has a broken wing to draw that dog away from the nest. So, at least that behavior is conducive towards the theist to dealing with creditors in some capacity, especially in some kind of nest raid, you whether that might be again, raccoons and stuff like that, like Matt was saying are huge nest eaters so…
Hank Shaw: Yeah. That’s interesting. Cause so they do the same thing that the killdeer do in the parking lot at Costco. At least tell me, you’ve seen that like, first of all, killdeer are the weirdest nestor’s ever.
A.J. DeRosa: Oh yeah. That’s a really good piece of territory right there in a Costco parking lot. And they’re doing the Brooklyn wink thing when people are trying to get their groceries. It’s hilarious.
Matt Soberg: I can’t say I have seen that.
Hank Shaw: Really? Oh, it must be. Maybe it’s a Western thing. I’ve seen it. I at least a dozen times. I mean, it’s like what is that? Oh my God, it’s killdeer or it’ll be in like a subdivision, in the middle of the subdivision, like they’re just bizarre nesters.
Matt Soberg: They always liked the baseball field back home. We’re trying to have spring baseball practice and playing center field and you’re dodging birds on the field.
Hank Shaw: Let’s get into hunting a bit. How, long have you guys been hunting woodcock and what got you into it?
Matt Soberg: Oh, for me, I started hunting woodcock when I was a kid. My father had a Brittany we’d hunt them in Southern New Hampshire. We still hunted grouse then, they were still a somewhat stable population, Southern New Hampshire there isn’t now. But so we would hunt woodcock mostly and we would get into a lot of woodcock. So I started doing it then, and then I kind of fell out of it for a while. I got back into it, but I did it without a dog for a long time. I’d say three, four years. I spent hunting woodcock pretty hard without a dog. And then I got a bird dog and has, as the story goes, it’s all over from there.
A.J. DeRosa: So, same for me. I grew up just shooting him every once in a while. Sort of like on the side when you were a ruffed grouse hunting and I never really started targeting them primarily until in college. And after when I got into bird dogs specifically pointing dogs, just because they, just lend themselves to being a great game bird, for young pointing dogs. And so I got into it more seriously then and I seem to get more serious about it year after year from then on
Hank Shaw: What makes them a good, bird for young dogs?
Matt Soberg: You can pinpoint fine numbers of them in certain areas once the game plan and know the habitat and know the time when they’re either here or migrating through and they hold tight, they run, I think more than people realize, and we can talk about that later, but in general, they hold tighter for pointing dogs. And so they allow for a young dog, maybe who’s just learning the game on wild birds to get a local closer to point.And so its just the frequency, the quantity, and then the ability to get in close to them.
Hank Shaw: The mental image of a woodcock running is making me smile. I’m going to post a video in the show notes of the video that everybody has seen of the woodcock strutting to the various songs, and it never gets old. It’s hilarious, but they don’t look like they’re really rudders. I mean, they’ve got little stumpy, little feet and they waddle kind of.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah, Matt and I went on the new England Grouse Camp Tour together. It’s a whole man. I don’t how many years ago it is now Matt, but, him and I share shared a lot of windshields time back in those days. And we had went to a few areas and I feel like this was when we first really started talking about this idea of running. And I know we say, we’re going to go down this rabbit hole later, but we were shooting a film in Western Massachusetts, and it was raining out. And man, I don’t know how many birds we saw just stand up and just, walk at a brisk rate away from our dogs. And lot of it, we actually captured on film, which was really cool, and that debate has come up more frequently of whether or not they do move.
And I think there’s a lot of reasons why, but, I won’t get into that right now, but one of the sayings, I want to say that I heard from Earl the Pearl, who is a hunting diet up in Minnesota we did a film with him one time and he said, “I like woodcock because they honor the dogs,” which is this idea that they’re more gentlemanly towards grouse dog in the North country than a grouse is. Grouse don’t want to stay still, but woodcock will certainly give that. And it makes it easier for somebody who’s, novice like myself, my first bird dog or whatever else, it’s such an achievable bar. It’s something that you don’t feel frustrated from as easily as trying to chase grouse. As Matt has said, when flights come through, there’s just so many birds.
So it’s, you can really get it right. And if your dog just decides he’s being a shithead that day, then you can at least not feel bad about the fact that, your dog messed up as many as it might have. So it’s just a lot of just ample opportunity. And then you look at areas again that don’t have wild bird populations like Southern New England and woodcock become really the only option you have if you want to hunt wild upland birds. So there’s that aspect that lives with it again, I said earlier in the podcast, I trained my dog and woodcock, and if I didn’t have woodcock here, I don’t know what I would have to go do planted birds, and I would have to keep pigeons or I’d have to do something else. But, it’s really, as far as that hurdle and especially getting into it, and then just the pure enjoyment of it is just such an incredible animal.
Hank Shaw: Yeah. I mean, my, my friend who lives on Cape Ann and Massachusetts, a guy named Nate grace, it’s basically exact same story. he does that big trip to Maine to go find ruffies but day in and day out on Cape Ann, he hunts that woodcock migration and they go right through there and he does pretty well on them. I can’t even imagine your situation that like I live in California and I don’t know. I mean, it was there like eight, 12 different species of Upland game bird, not, not to mention all of the ducks and geese and shorebirds and things like it’s, it’s virtually impossible to kill every huntable species of a bird in California in one year. And there’s just too many of them, but out East it’s destiny, it’s such a different story.
Matt Soberg: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s, you don’t even I think back to the episode that you did on doves, I mean, you’re originally from the Northeast, you can’t even hunt doves pretty much any new England state. I believe there’s a season of Rhode Island for doves now, but you can’t hunt them in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, or Vermont. So it’s, unless you’re a duck Hunter, I mean, obviously the sea duck hunting and all that kind of stuff, but waterfall Upland, that’s kind of big switch. So especially if you have a grip on that’s afraid of water, like I do, which is my own fault. I shouldn’t say it in an accusatory tone towards him.
Hank Shaw: So Matt you start first and then we’ll go back to AJ design for me, the perfect woodcock hunting dog. Now try to leave the breed out of it. What is it? What is this magical dog do that makes it perfect for woodcock and then so first Matt, and then, okay.
Matt Soberg: Oh, that’s a tough one. You’re setting me up to fail a little bit here. I think, I think it, it depends on your personal predisposition on what kind of dogs you like and how they run and what sort of expectations you have for your dogs. So I’ll give you two examples. I’ve had some phenomenal woodcock hunting with Springer Spaniels. They work the cover like crazy. They stay close, especially after the leaves fall, once they’ll flush close.
So you can anticipate the flush and you can get some really phenomenal wing shooting over flushing dogs. So that’s an idea, maybe a Springer or a Cocker or a closer working flushing dog is good. Personally, I prefer pointing dogs and I like long legged athletic dogs that covered ground and point and hold tight. That’s just more exciting for me. So they got to cover ground. They got to find the birds on their own. Sometimes they’ll range pretty far, but once they find them, then you, you have the ability to walk up and flush the bird yourself. That’s, that’s just the type of wind shooting and bird dogs that I prefer.
Hank Shaw: AJ.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. So, similar sentiment to Matt, I mean, I actually had some chances to hunt over American Cocker this past year, which was pretty interesting, cause I had never done that up in Maine. Just, I mean, they just make your heart melt. They’re just cool, cool dogs. But the interest, both Matt and I come from kind of this pointing dog world, and especially in grouse country, setters kind of rule the world pointers are pretty popular as in, we won’t call them English pointers because that would be incorrect in the United States. But I’m talking about a very specific breed when I say point or not kind of the, all the pointer breeds, I have a Griffon. So Griffons, the interesting thing is that they’re a dog that’s known for working closer.
They, they were one of the first dogs in Europe that were bred for the foot Hunter rather than hunting on horseback. So when it comes to grouse hunting a dog, staying close can make a great tool for action, especially in areas where birds are really jumpy and wirey, where it can become a moment when I start to think about hunting over setters, whether it’s Nick Larson and his dogs, or all the other people that I know in Minnesota, that everybody seems to own a setter. It’s if you’re in a day that the woodcock are sparse and a cover, those dogs are going to get out there and they’re going to find them. So, if my dog’s only working at 50 yards, I have to cover a lot more ground on those same days than when you have a dog that is going to run out to a hundred, 150 200 yards.
And because the bird itself is conducive towards staying for that dog, unlike grouse, it makes for a lot more of an exciting kind of moment. And actually, what, what brings me back to this moment is actually a hunt that Nick, that Matt and I were on together. And we were in Vermont with the folks from Orvis and Scott McInerney had his set her out unbelievable dog. I actually started hunting in Michigan and in Vermont, and we were hunting this North face of this mountain. And I mean, this dog would go out and just find these birds in places that honestly, meet me. And Matt were kind of looking at each other, I wouldn’t even been looking for woodcock here. And I mean, this dog would go and find these birds just anywhere. And then, he’d look at us and be like, Oh, dogs on point 150 yards, but we’re in the mountains.
So, that’s 150 yards up or down in some cases abandoned ski slopes. So you can just imagine what that’s like. So it’s, that makes it really exciting. And those are moments when, if you do have a dog that’s close working, you might feel a little more like, Oh man, I just wish this dog would go out further. So there’s a little bit of it’s whatever your flavor is. That’s the beauty of, of upland hunting in general is that, we have this, it’s like going to the ice cream bar and you can start with frozen yogurt, soft serve, hard serve, all the different flavors, all the different toppings and upland hunting is very conducive to that.
And so it’s, it’s really a user based experience, but that’s for me those days where woodcock are spread out and I look at grim and I’m just like, Oh man, dude, I wish you were. I wish she were further out there today.
Hank Shaw: Interesting. So the first dog I ever hunted woodcock with was fin the lab is Christmas. Gannon’s old dog. I don’t know, 15 years ago, more than that. And obviously is she was a flusher. And I actually like the flushing experience better because I get stage fright with pointed birds. My kill rate on especially woodcock where you have an English pointer or some other pointing dog, that’s like, it’s right there. It’s right there. And I’m like, I know, I know. I know. And then the thing that the bird gets up and like with whip whip, and it’s just, Oh man. And as opposed to either a flushing dog flushing dog it’s nice. Cause it’s like, Oh, the dog’s birdie. Like I should pay attention now. And it’s kind of a nice for me at least mid range in the sense that, Oh, the dog’s birdie, I should pay attention now.
Oh, there it is. And then you more often than not kill it, but really I’m a dogless hunters. So the flush is always a surprise to me, which is probably why I’m a better shot. I’m a better snapshot than I am, pointed like a setup shot. And I can’t tell you how many times I shot a limit of woodcock about 200 yards away from my friend. Who’s got the dog and the dog is of course staying with him. And he’s hadn’t, I will often outshoot hunters with dogs, I think maybe because they’re paying more attention to the dog and they’re not, they don’t have their head on a swivel the same way I do, because I know that I’m at a disadvantage and I will also crash through the nastiest stuff ever. Like you were talking before about habitat, mild sayings, that if you can toss your hat in and hits the ground are, and then you would cock there.
Matt Soberg: So am with the hand guy, I admit it. If I can, if I know what a bird is, if I can see it on the ground could be a woodcock in front of a pointing dog or a grouse on a log. I’m trying to flush it. If I can see it on the ground, I don’t know what it, I can’t, I miss them to be honest with you. I did. They never fly the way I think they’re going to go. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s that anticipation, but I’m more, more of a snapshot or maybe more of an instinct shooter. So I’m with you on that. I agree.
Hank Shaw: So, everybody talks about how difficult they are to kill. And I don’t find them hard to shoot at all. I find them of all of the upland birds, they’re slow, they go straight up and then they go away. And I just, I don’t find them overly challenging to hit once they’re in the air. I mean, it’s, I mean, yes, I don’t hit them every single time, but it could be because I am so much of a quail hunter that I find my bats to be significantly like, Oh, yay. I have got all the time in the world. Cause he’s going to go right up to the top of the, the Alder thicket, and then he’s going to fly away. So I usually catch him on the rise and if not, then I’ll just catch
I mean, I shoot, if I’m in a state where I can use lead, I’ll use lead sixes on them or I’ll use, bismuth six is on them. Because the reason I do that is because typically I’m shooting through all kinds of sticks and things, and I don’t want weak pellets to get deflected. And I want to put that bird on the ground. And also you’re hunting ruffed grouse as well, virtually every single time you’re hunting woodcock so that if a, for grouse gets up, you want to put that bird on the ground as well. So what do you guys think about the flying abilities of, of these birds as well? And then talk to me about what kind of shot do you use?
Matt Soberg: Oh, well, for me, it brings to two names that I think of, of the woodcock: mud bat, which they get their name for their erratic flying like a bat when they come up off the ground, essentially until they clear that canopy. And then the other name I’ve heard is timber rocket, which was a couple of Minnesota folks that call them the guys from modern wild. And that’s because once they cleared that canopy, they are going, and there’s kind of two schools of thought, or I guess the, I don’t know if it’s the correct way, but I’ve heard from very experienced woodcock hunters that letting them level out and then shooting is far more conducive than trying to shoot them when they fly like a bat. I’m like you at once they start in flight, I’m emptying my gun. I just, there’s something about that excitement of that bird just fluttering in front of you and trying to hit that canopy and doing that wide open chokes, hugely important.
And the age old, kind of advice of hunting grouse and woodcock in the North country is ignore the trees. If you’re thinking about missing a tree with the barrel of your gun, or where are you going to swing, you’re always going to be missing periods. So you get to start swinging that gun and doing your thing no matter what and start unloading. It’s kind of that if you don’t have lead in the game, you don’t have game on the ground. So I hunt all steel now. I usually use either six or seven steel. So that’s what I stick to for shot size, if I can find seven. So I’ll use them. But for the most part six is kind of the easy one I have hunted them with as low as number nines in lead, which is-
Hank Shaw: The mist of death.
Matt Soberg: Yeah, exactly. And it’s like, you’re just bound to find a million, number nines and your, meat. So I’ve actually, I, I’ve kind of learned the hard way that a bigger shot can certainly equate to a friendlier meat. So obviously, there’s such thing as too big, a shot that you’ll destroy a bird as small as a woodcock, but I have since become a fan of that six, seven steel. So yeah,
Hank Shaw: A side note to that, if you go to dartagnan.com, so they’re, they’re a game purveyor and they are allowed to sell English hunted game in the American market. So they had some kind of freezer sale once and they had a bunch of birds and like, Oh, why not? I’ll buy some. So I bought some and they were full of number nines full of it looks so like Holly and I, I mean, we are huge hunters. We hunt for primary, all of our, all of our meat, right? So when we hunt lots and lots of birds, we had more shot in our meal from those star Canyon birds than I’ve ever had from hunted birds. And it’s because we’re because like, you guys were always using, we’re not using eights or nines really ever. I used to use led aides for dogs but steel eights don’t work well. So, and we, we don’t shoot lead anymore in California. So Matt, same, same deal. You are, you shoot them on the rise or you would let him level, or, and are you shooting seventh as well?
Matt Soberg: Yeah, I think it depends a little bit on where you’re haunting them and what type of habitat you’re in. If it’s a little more open, they could go anywhere … left, right, up, anywhere. I’ve had them come back at me sometimes, where it’s almost like you look at them eye to eye, and it’s almost like they’re going to poke your eye out sometimes. They could go anywhere.
Hank Shaw: I’ve seen that.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. In aspen stands, they can go anywhere, but more often than not, they’re going to do like you guys are saying, fly till they get to the top of the trees and then that’s a good time to try to shoot them if they’re not too close. You don’t want to blow them up either. But take them on the rise when they get … When they get to the top again, they can go anywhere. It’s sort of the bat mentality, left, right, up, down, around. That’s why I think they’re sort of an underrated wing-shooting challenge or opportunity. They’re easy for some people. They’re very hard for others. Yeah. And then, I use probably seven and a halfs primarily, just because I’m hunting grouse too at the same time. Most of the shots in the north woods, when it’s thick, even when the leaves are down, are pretty close. I’ve dabbled in eights and nines some, when I know I’m going after woodcock primarily, but otherwise I stick with seven and a halfs mostly.
Hank Shaw: I stand by the bismuth or lead sixes, because typically when you’re woodcock hunting, you’re going to A, see woodcock; B, hopefully see ruffed grouse; and C, squirrels. You can kill squirrels with sevens and eights, but I’ve had any number of tree squirrels laugh at you when you wing them with a bunch of sevens. Because they have a hide like nobody’s business, but they can’t get through sixes. I have come home any number of times with all three birds in the bag, or the two birds and the squirrel in the bag. It’s kind of a good all around shot for what I’m doing. All right. If you were going to tell a guy who wanted to, but has never hunted woodcock before … Let’s say he lives in Colorado or something. “Hey man, I’ve never shot a woodcock.” Where would you send this person, and when would you send this person?
A.J. DeRosa: Oh man. I mean, being a New Englander, it’s really … I mean, I guess it’s probably true for the Upper Midwest, but you follow any of the major river ways, so the Connecticut River Valley, stuff like that, and you’re going to get higher densities. They’re like most migratory birds, that they’re going to follow some kind of landmark. But I mean, it gets back to that idea of dense cover. If I was going to simplify it, which I am a firm believer in that, because as much time as I’ve spent hunting woodcock and grouse, I still have a lot of challenging difficulties with fully understanding and grasping what the biological perfection of habitat is.
For me, it’s just, find things that are thick, find soil that exists, and just find somewhere where they could have landed next to it. Any kind of overgrown fields in New England, any overgrown apple orchards are sure bets for good woodcock hunting, abandoned farm land, anything that would be conducive to really good soil qualities like that, and also thick cover. For new England, I honestly think in a way it’s a little easier to say, hey, if you can find an abandoned apple orchard or you can find an overgrown orchard, or if you can find an overgrown farm, you’re going to find birds. I’m sure, you go out … When I’ve hunted, the beauty about the Upper Midwest is that idea of the aspen. I remember the first time I hunted Michigan, which was the first time I’d hunted the Upper Midwest, and saw all that aspen. I was just like, I mean, mind blown. But you can’t do that out here, unfortunately. Again, yeah, young cover, young soil.
Hank Shaw: Would you tell this mythical hunter from Colorado to come to New England, or would you send them to the UP or Wisconsin or … That’s the thing. Or do you send them to Louisiana in December?
A.J. DeRosa: I mean, I’ve had hunts in New England that have been incredible, where I’ve hit a flight right. But I have never experienced what I’ve experienced in the Upper Midwest, where it’s just flight pile ups. I mean, the Central Flyway, as it’s called, which is where the Upper Midwest is, it’s just a way higher density of woodcock than the Eastern Flyway. In that regard, I would be of the mind to say, “Go to the Upper Midwest.”
I don’t have enough experience to say … or, no experience for that matter, to go down south. I know as somebody who’s passionate about woodcock, I remember riding in the truck with Matt and talking about Louisiana and just being like, “This is on my bucket list. I got to do this.” It’s like a Mecca idea. But there are places like … I hunt Connecticut pretty frequently, and once that migration comes through, I mean, you have days that are measurably close to what the Upper Midwest is. I think that’s just because of the lack of habitat, so they are forced to pile up in smaller areas. But in the north country in New England, they’re a lot more spread out.
Matt Soberg: I would recommend that they … I’m kind of a homer, but I would recommend that they come here. We have lots of –
Hank Shaw: Northern Minnesota is what you’re talking [crosstalk 00:51:32].
Matt Soberg: Yeah, northern Minnesota or Wisconsin or Michigan, the Western Great Lakes. The thing we have going for us for open hunting grouse and woodcock, we have lots of public land, which on one hand is daunting, because it seems like finding a good cover somewhere … Because there’s so much public land to cover, it seems like a needle in a haystack, but it really isn’t. I would tell them to cheat. It’s really not cheating, but it sort of is. The DNRs in the Western Great Lakes have done a great job at providing opportunities for upland hunters, whether it’s hunter walking trails or ruffed grouse management areas or the GEMS program in Michigan. They sort of point uplanders in the right direction.
For example, in Minnesota, if you go to the DNR website and you locate a hunter walking trail or a ruffed grouse management area, naturally those are named those because they provide walk-in only hunter access, but they’ve also been … there’s been some habitat management along those trails at some point. If you’re just starting out as an uplander and you go to Minnesota, walk a hunter walking trail enough times, whether you have a dog or not, by trial and error, if you put in enough time and effort into it, you’re going to find birds that way. It’s a really good opportunity to sort of figure it out on your own. You’ll pinpoint the habitat where you find the birds. You’ll see aspen cuts. You’ll see open fields. You’ll see sloughs with all their edges. If you put it in enough time and effort, you’re going to find birds and figure it out pretty quickly.
Hank Shaw: That’s good advice. What about guns? I have found that Tinkerbell, my 20 gauge over and under … It’s a Franchi Veloce and it’s got a very short barrel and it only weighs about five and a half pounds. I’ve shot that one gun for, I don’t know, 18, 20 years. It’s a fantastic woodcock gun because it’s little and it gets out of its own way. I can snap shoot faster than a guy who’s got a 28, 30 inch barrel. I know guys who do .410s. I know people who use 12 gauges. I’d be interested to hear what you guys do.
Matt Soberg: For me, one thing I’ve found, I think is in kind of this path of the uplands, is that gun fit is so underrated in America. I’ve certainly found once I’ve shot guns that were at least close to my measurements or my actual measurements, that I do significantly better. I gravitate towards 20 gauge. I switched to side-by-sides about three, four years ago. I went down that very stereotypical north woods double gun path.
Hank Shaw: Do you now have patches on your elbows?
A.J. DeRosa: I don’t, not yet. I got to wear them in a little more. But, I went to side-by-sides. I’m a sucker for European-made guns. I collect them now. Last year I shot … I jumped between AYA 28 gauge and then a Savage Fox A Grade 20 gauge. That AYA was fit for me, so I did pretty well with it. It was the first time I proactively hunted with a 28. I really did enjoy that. But my first kind of gun that I did really well with woodcock was actually a Franchi over and under as well, the Franchi Instinct, I believe it’s called. Yeah. I did really well with that gun. Shot my first birds over this dog with it, traveled a lot with it. It comes down to that kind of basic thing is, whatever gun you can shoot well is the best gun to use.
But if you talk about culture, then yeah, side-by-sides is just like … There’s just something about breaking out a side-by-side in the north country and getting out. Whether it’s some obscure company that’s out of business, to a classic like a Fox or a Parker, there’s just so much to it. But I think the most important thing is a gauge that makes sense for you. I think .410s can be frustratingly challenged. I’ve hunted with them. I’ve shot woodcock with them. I would never do it again, especially if there’s grouse in the area. But I would say 28, 20, 16 … I’m not a fan of a 12 gauge. But I’m 5’5″ and 145 pounds, so anything above a 20 gauge is not my friend.
Hank Shaw: 10 gauge, three and a half at least.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah, yeah, totally. Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Hank Shaw: Have I ever told you the story about the one and only time I’ve shot a side-by-side?
Matt Soberg: Let’s hear it.
A.J. DeRosa: Well, you’re going to tell us, yeah. Come on.
Hank Shaw: I was on the book tour in 2016, I think it was. I have a real good friend who lives in Geauga County, Ohio. We’re going squirrel hunting, and at this point I didn’t actually have my guns with me for some reason. Usually I put them in the back of the truck. I didn’t have any guns and Joe’s like, “Well, you can borrow this gun.” It’s a side-by-side. I said, “Wow, that’s a pretty nice side-by-side.” We’re like, “Yeah, let’s go squirrel hunting.” I look at this gun, I’m like, “Is this like some fancy English gun?” He’s like, “Yeah, in fact it is. It’s a Purdey.” I’m like, “How the hell did you get a Purdey?”
Well, he had a friend who was older than him, and he was so old he wasn’t hunting anymore, and he just gave my friend Joe this beautiful Purdey 12 gauge side-by-side. I think the myth is real, man. This gun was heavy, but when you held it at the chamber it was weightless, it was so perfectly balanced. It was really amazing. The only thing I’ve ever shot with one of these fancy ass guns are tree squirrels, which I think is wildly appropriate for who I am.
Matt Soberg: That’s awesome. I’ve always been a side-by-side guy, kind of grew up with them. My grandpa, my dad, and my uncle all shot side-by-sides. I don’t have anything real fancy right now. I shoot 20 gauge primarily. I have an old Fox, an old Lefever. Actually, a gun I shoot lot is a CZ side-by-side. Yeah. If anybody’s interested in a side-by-side and maybe wants to get into an entry level in terms of price, I like my CZ a lot. To me it’s like an old baseball glove. It’s sturdy. It’s reliable. It’s going to be around forever and it just does the job. I feel like I can shoot pretty decent with it, so I always hate to leave that gun at home.
A.J. DeRosa: Are you talking the Bobwhite, Matt?
Matt Soberg: Ringneck.
A.J. DeRosa: Oh, okay. That’s one of the older ones.
Matt Soberg: Yep. Yep.
A.J. DeRosa: Cool.
Hank Shaw: What other gear do you need to be a good woodcock hunter? I mean, I would imagine … Let’s just talk about footwear to start, because footwear can be challenging with woodcock hunting because of their nature. Grouse, you can kind of stay in and just wear good boots. But woodcock, I have found that if there was a really good pair of sturdy, cut-resistant Wellies, like a Le Chameau boot, that’s something that I’m going to want to wear a lot because they’re comfortable and they’re waterproof. I have found that if I wear my regular old standard upland boots or mountain boots, invariably there’s going to be birds where there’s water, not up to your ankles, but up to your toes. It’s like squishy, squishy and you’re going to be sad after the first half hour in that case. Do you guys do kind of the same?
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. I’m a New Englander, so I’m rubber boots through and through. I mean, rubber boots have come such a long way. I mean, I don’t think there’s many brands you can buy now that don’t make a good soled, pretty snug fitting pull over rubber boot. Obviously, there’s some brands like Gumleaf and Le Chameau that make zip sides, stuff like that. But I found any time I have not worn rubber boots into the woods, I have regretted it.
Matt Soberg: It’s wet out there right now, so I do the same. I always put on a new, or a nice pair of leather boots and then I regret it after. So, rubber boots around here when it’s wet is definitely a go-to. A.J. mentioned it, Le Chameau. I have had good luck with those, and Gumleaf as well, would be good brands.
Hank Shaw: Chaps or no chaps, or tin cloth pants or no tin cloth pants?
A.J. DeRosa: Oh man, you’re just getting into it, huh? I’m a pants guy. I’m cut from that fiber of, I don’t ride a horse. Right now, I’ve been wearing Fjallravens for quite some time, which I really love. You can actually wax them up and stuff. They’re pretty hardy for taking on New England briars, which for the most part … The other one, if you’re talking cheap, is I have a pair of Wrangler Upland pants that I got for like 30 bucks. I mean, those things are like … I mean, I feel like you could try to drive a nail through the front of them and it’s pretty tough. But the only thing is they’re not really breathable. They’re not really that comfortable, but yeah.
Hank Shaw: Yeah. I wore tin cloth from Filson Pants and they worked great. But like you said, they’re not breathable and man, they stink like your nads after like one season. You can’t really put them in the washing machine, and it’s just … I’ve kind of switched to your hybrid. I’ll wear a pair of Wrangler jeans and then the Filson tin cloth chaps over it. That seems to help a lot. I mean, it also keeps everything breathable as well. How about you, Matt?
Matt Soberg: Yeah, I’m not a big chaps guy for a couple of reasons. When you’re trying to walk through some of the gnarly woodcock cover, for me chaps get hung up too much. I like to try to be as mobile as possible. And then, when you’re hunting them now it gets a little hot midday. If you’re still hunting then, for me, chaps are a little too hot. I think they’re too hot too, maybe for hunting in the south as well. Even if you’re hunting in December or January, it can get to 70, low 80s when you’re hunting down there. They’re just a little too hot for me.
Hank Shaw: Let’s talk about that. You’re talking about cold, and woodcock is also unique in the sense that unless you’re down south … well, even if you’re down south, because then they don’t get there until the winter. It’s a zephyr of a season. I mean, you’re hunting a migration and it’s … Does it start in September anywhere, or is it a really October thing?
A.J. DeRosa: The Upper Midwest … I think, Matt, your season’s already open, isn’t it?
Matt Soberg: Yeah, September 19th. Typically grouse season here starts right around September 15th, and typically woodcock season is a week later, and then it runs for 45 days. It’s usually that third or fourth week in September it starts up, up north.
Hank Shaw: But it’s a thing where the migration’s only … I think you’d mentioned before, typically … I mean, it can be as little as a week to three weeks, right?
Matt Soberg: Yeah, that’s right. We always target early October as a good time. October 15th is a good target date. After that, it can still happen from year to year. You can never really time it perfectly. But by the end of October, most of the woodcock are gone, unfortunately, and then you’re just chasing ruffed grouse.
Hank Shaw: What drives them away? Is it just snow or freezing temperatures or-
Matt Soberg: That’s a tough one too. I think there’s many different theories. A.J. might have some more ideas on this. It can be many different factors that go together. Some say the moon phase during that time of year has something to do with it. I know weather can affect them to a certain extent. I don’t think it’s primarily driven by weather, but if we get a huge cold front, snow and wind, it’ll drive them through here a little quicker than typical.
A.J. DeRosa: Predicting the woodcock migration is like when you start talking about things like storm systems moving through and all that kind of stuff. It’s a bit like dark arts, and depending on the crowd you’re in, you could either get people in agreement or told to leave. There’s always healthy debate over why things happen. I mean, I’ve heard debates over weak flying birds, whether that actually means it’s a flight bird or not. Just really interesting kind of theories related to why they migrate. But what I have found is that it’s consistent in the sense of there is a pretty good ballpark, and kind of like Matt saying that yeah, a strong system might totally move birds through a little faster than thought, if you pay attention to the weather above you, north of you.
One of the driving factors I’ve heard biologists say, but I don’t think this is necessarily true for everywhere, is once that ground freezes, they can’t eat worms, so they have to stay below that freeze. That’s a driving factor that I think is wholly truthful, whether or not they’re moving out 30 days ahead of it or three days ahead of that, I don’t know the answer to that. But where I live, it’s a little different timing. The best woodcock hunting, as far as the migration’s concerned, is going to be the end of October. You get down to Connecticut and it’s that first kind of week of November into the second week of November. I think you can go as late as November 21st, I want to say, in Connecticut. I don’t a hundred percent remember right now. But those best days are definitely that last week and first week of November for New England.
Hank Shaw: I imagine it’s December, January in Louisiana.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah, I think it’s roughly mid-December through the end of January, typically. When I go, I usually go over the New Year, so first week in January.
Hank Shaw: Let’s just talk a bit about … There’s a bit of an elephant in the room that we haven’t discussed yet, and that’s that woodcock is kind of the redheaded stepchild of ruffed grouse hunting. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone with someone who has great dogs, usually in Michigan or Wisconsin or Minnesota, and sometimes they don’t even shoot the woodcock. Many times they’re like, “Man, it’s a woodcock.” They really want the ruffed grouse. I mean, I don’t know.
I mean, I’m just going to come out and say it. I’d rather eat a woodcock than a ruffed grouse, just because they’re more interesting. My theory at least, is that that is why woodcock are kind of the second fiddle to ruffed grouse, even though they co-exist and you can hunt them at the same time, is that they’re not a white meat bird to speak of, and they have a distinct flavor to them. They’re not as big, and they don’t fly as strong as ruffed grouse. But I’d like to hear your guys’ thoughts as well, because I’m the rare person who prefers woodcock eating and hunting to ruffed grouse, as much as I love ruffed grouse. That’s just kind of a strong statement.
A.J. DeRosa: Oh, I’ve definitely known people like you’re saying that are … Woodcock is incidental. But I think an important thing we’re saying here is that woodcock presents a great opportunity for a gateway upland bird. I’ve talked to people that work in the state of Mississippi about how they’ve talked about getting people excited for woodcock hunting, to kind of rekindle this idea of upland hunting and therefore making people excited about recovering bobwhite populations, because they’re so achievable, because they’re spread out in so many areas where there are not wild birds. Again, because you go to a certain point in the woodcock states, and now there’s no longer any ruffed grouse. I know in the past couple of years there’s been a measurable increase of woodcock hunting, particularly in the south in places where there aren’t other wild bird options that are viable.
I think that there’s a new culture, especially younger people. Being a millennial with a brand that works a lot with millennials, there’s this inherent interest for woodcock because it’s a great stepping stone, and again, the availability. If I still lived in Eastern Massachusetts and had a bird dog, I mean, my only option is to hunt released pheasant or to hunt woodcock. So there’s something to be said about that. I agree with you on the food sense of, woodcock are a flavorful bird. I know other people have the opinions that it’s a bad flavorful bird, but I think it’s like anything, you just need to learn how to handle it and you need to treat it like a woodcock and not like a chicken. I just think it’s that simple.
Matt Soberg: I think the gateway term is a great one. We talked about hunting woodcock with young dogs. That’s one thing. But if you’re talking about mentoring and getting new hunters into upland hunting, I don’t know that there’s anything better than woodcock. for one, they’re a wild bird. They cooperate with you. If you have, especially with pointing dogs, you can almost manipulate the scene to the extent that if you have a dog on point, you can get a new shooter in position to at least have an opportunity to see the bird, if not shoot at the bird. And it’s really an underrated opportunity, I think in the Upland hunting world, if we had more young hunters or new hunters, no matter who they are, hunting Woodcock, you take them on a hunt like we had here in Minnesota where you see that many birds in one afternoon, it really is a special thing. And I think it’s addicting to a certain extent. I don’t know who wouldn’t have fun if you’re even mildly interested in hunting. Who wouldn’t have fun in a situation like that.
Hank Shaw: But it’s still not ruffed grouse hunting. Both of you guys skirted the question.
A.J. DeRosa: You’ve never heard the saying actually, Matt, since you’re on here, me and Nick Larson were talking about this the other day, because it is quoted from somebody and we couldn’t figure out who it was, but this idea that ruffed grouse hunting is an act of violence. Do you know who that’s from, Matt?
Matt Soberg: I don’t. I don’t.
A.J. DeRosa: But you’ve heard that before, right?
Matt Soberg: Yeah. I’ve heard it. Yeah, a while back.
Hank Shaw: It has to be some New England prancy person with [inaudible 01:10:19]
A.J. DeRosa: Of course, yeah. Yeah. Burton Spiller or William Harnden Foster, just going off there but-
Hank Shaw: Somebody with three names.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah, but at least for me, I’ve always found that for grouse hunting, I feel like people are chasing something that birds don’t inherently want to behave like and not to go too far down a rabbit hole, but this is similar to this idea that we mentioned earlier about a Woodcock running and walking from points. And back in my deer hunting days, I wrote about this theory of generations of animals passing on stressors without having to learn them and there is a science to it that’s called a trans-generational stress inheritance. So essentially what that means is that if I’m AJ the grouse and I go out and I have an experience with my dog Grim and I survived that said experience, my offspring all the way to my grandchildren birds are going to have that knowledge, whether they experienced it or not.
So I think it’s actually interesting that we talk about this increase of participation in Woodcock hunting in the United States and also I feel like it’s not crazy to say that this frequency of Woodcock running and walking from points is more frequent nowadays, and that it’s becoming more prevalent. And I think that that’s a direct result of these birds getting an education from all sorts of novices and millennials like me that are just out there raising holy hell on these birds. But grouse, there are people out there that are chasing this beautiful single point that you walk up on and the dog doesn’t move a single muscle and that bird gets up there and it’s an incredible thing when it happens, but the bird itself, unless you’re in the most remote reaches of Northern Maine or Canada where they don’t see dogs, they just don’t want to behave like that.
They inherently run. It’s not what they are and I think about guys like in Michigan, the Heller brothers running ruffed grouse with flushing dogs, and just fast paced and it’s this intense chaos and they’re getting a lot more shooting opportunities than folks like I would with a pointing dog. So there is this really different user experience that occurs between the two of them that can make you love them, it can make you hate them in striking a cord from the shucker world is… I think people hunt grouse for revenge sometimes, it’s like they’re getting the best of you more often than not.
Hank Shaw: Hmm. Yeah. We’re going to do a whole episode on ruffed grouse and I have all kinds of things to say about that particular bird, because I have haunted them… I think I’ve hunted them in all three major regions they exist, four really, I found them in Canada as well. You guys both know that that ruffed grouse in Manitoba or where I live in the West, they’re dim to put it politically correctly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a ruffed grouse in the Rockies or the Uintas or in the Pacific Northwest. [inaudible 01:13:34] “Hey, how’s it going? What’s it going on? Are you having a good day? What’s that stick you’re pointing at me?” And it’s the Western experience with the ruffed grouse and I think you’re right about that inherited skittishness because they are a great game bird in the Great Lakes area in New England and they’re just not in the West.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. I’ve hunted them way up in Northern Maine before where actually a guy Matt and I actually filmed with called the Main Chickens and then he goes and trains his young dogs up on them and I’ve since gotten way up into those Northern reaches and these birds just don’t have experiences with dogs. So they’re willing to stay for a point at a lot greater rate than areas that are experienced heavy pressure or even areas like… I live in central New Hampshire, there are not many bird hunters with dogs around here, but these birds are more wiry than anywhere and I think part of that is just there’s people everywhere and they’re inherently evading people and they’re passing that on, it’s just in their threads. Maybe if humans disappeared and a few generations of birds die out, they would get back to that Western bird mentality but I don’t think anybody’s going to stop hunting them at that rate anytime soon.
Hank Shaw: Now we have our limit of Woodcock, which I think is three everywhere if I’m not mistaken.
A.J. DeRosa: That’s right.
Hank Shaw: They are way easier to pluck than any of the grouse. So I discovered this by accident. I used to hunt them and then let them sit for two or three days in a cooler or a refrigerator and then pick them. And then there’s one day that I didn’t have that opportunity, I just had to pick them that night and they pick way easier. They’re not as easy as doves or pigeons, but they’re a lot easier than all of the other gallinaceous birds. And so that’s my preamble of saying, hashtag give a pluck.
Again, because your limit is only three birds, really not asking too much of you to pluck your Woodcock, it’s just not that many and it doesn’t take you more than… It probably take you, if you’re a beginner 15 minutes, maybe 20. And I can pluck a Woodcock in about two or three minutes. So the reason you do that, and I’ll put pictures in the show notes is, and you guys have seen it I guarantee you, Woodcock can be morbidly obese, like almost as fat as ducks. I’ve seen them where the skin is full on white with fat underneath it. And Woodcock fat is not as good as Chachalaca fat and that’s probably a sentence that has never been uttered in the universe.
There is no wild fat that I’ve ever eaten that’s better than Chachalaca fat. At all. With Pintail fat being number two and good wild pig fat being number three. Bear fat can be good too. But Woodcock is in terms of the Upland experience, A, other than the weird Chachalaca bird, which exists in one spot in the United States, it is the best tasting and fattest of the Upland birds. Now, that doesn’t mean every single one of them is going to be fat, but I will find if I’m hunting them for three days and I get my nine birds, probably five to six of them are going to be fat and you will never experience that if you skin your bird out. And that’s my little soap box for that. And I also like to keep the feet on them because it just looks cool and it scares people.
A.J. DeRosa: And please eat the legs.
Hank Shaw: Oh God, yeah.
A.J. DeRosa: The number of people that just [inaudible 01:17:20] them out and forget about Woodcock legs. You’d think that they’re small, but they’re amazing. They really are.
Hank Shaw: So they’re also in this big category of opposite birds. So Woodcock, Sage grouse, spruce grouse, not so much sharp tails, but Prairie chickens and there are a few other birds that we hunt that have white meat legs and dark meat breasts. And it goes back to what we talked about, geez, almost an hour ago now, where Woodcock just do that little wobbly thing and I love how you termed it. They get up and walk briskly away. They don’t really run so much it’s like, “I’m going to leave right now,” and so they just don’t have big, heavy, dark meat legs like a turkey would or a pheasant. So yeah. And they’re muscular little things too. What is your go-to way to cook them? Start with A.J.
A.J. DeRosa: Oh man. I try to cook them in a variety because once the Woodcock season comes, I pretty much live off Woodcock. I’ve certainly frozen Woodcock plenty of times, but I don’t feel like they’re necessarily the best bird for freezing. So it’s like eat them while you have them. I used to not leave the skin on, I will admit that. I used to not de-feather them, I started that last a couple of years that I started doing that. I have a tendency to go towards anything Italian. The other thing is that they’re inherently an earthy flavor, so mushrooms, they also respond well to the flavors where they live. So for where I live, apples, cranberry, anything like that that you can do. And then if I start just going down my Italian heritage, they can taste good and Cacciatore.
They can taste even good, slow cooked in spaghetti sauce and just let them fall apart. I’m a firm believer that there’s no wrong way to eat a Woodcock. I’ve had pate from them or if I said that correctly, I’ve had them in a number of ways. But honestly, when I was a kid, we would just take them, we’d breast them out and you’d throw them in a pan with a little butter and you’d cook them and they’re meant to be eaten medium rare. So people shouldn’t be afraid of doing that. So I’m very much at the cloth that there’s two ways to ultimately handle the meat. You either severely over cook it, meaning in a place that’s slow cooking like spaghetti sauce, where they do have chance to still stay moist, or you have to inherently under cook them like medium rare. If you do that, cook them all the way through methodology, you are bound to get rubber.
Hank Shaw: It’s like squid.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah.
Hank Shaw: Squid’s the same way. Squid’s either 60 seconds or two hours.
A.J. DeRosa: Yes.
Hank Shaw: Matt?
Matt Soberg: I’m not a very good cook to be really honest with you.
Hank Shaw: Well, you are from Minnesota and not-
Matt Soberg: Exactly. Well said.
Hank Shaw: All of my listeners from Minnesota are about to throw heavy objects at me.
Matt Soberg: I do it super simple. Either pan seared or on the grill, just flip I’m quick with a little salt and pepper. Make sure they’re medium rare to rare. If you go more than that, I don’t think they’re very good. And I personally like the earthy flavor. I just like to taste it wild that way. And then with the legs, I like to grill them and then serve. It’s always fun to serve a pan of Woodcock legs to your friends as an appetizer, leave the feet on them so they look gnarly.
A.J. DeRosa: Totally. Totally. I was hoping you were going to say, “Leave the feet on them,” because A as a handle and B it’s like an Adam’s family appetizer.
Matt Soberg: I think AJ has a picture of me choking on one of those in New York somewhere.
A.J. DeRosa: We actually… I found a video.
Hank Shaw: Oh my God. The dirty joke of choking on a woodcock… I can’t resist it.
Matt Soberg: I said it.
A.J. DeRosa: This morning, I was going through video files because we had some stuff from TikTok that we were doing with Project Upland and however it had gotten in there, there was a video clip of you biting that Woodcock leg that came off that grill when we were in New York. I’ve got to send it to you. It’s funny because you take a big old bite out of it, start chewing and just have a smile on your face.
Matt Soberg: Got a bone down the throat.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. And if you ever get a chance to go to Pine Ridge grouse camp, Hank, the guys over there make poppers out of the legs. So they do-
Hank Shaw: Out of the legs?
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah. So they do cream cheese, jalapeno and wrap them in bacon and they de-bone the leg. And essentially, they leave the foot on, so you grab it by the foot and you just bite into them and they’re just absolutely incredible. And the other way, Matt, you probably remember this, Mark Fouts at RGS, I went a couple of times to the corporate office and he would cook them on a George Foreman and they were just incredible every time and he’d do them for lunch. And I’m trying to remember how he did them. Did he ever make that for you?
Matt Soberg: No, I don’t remember that.
A.J. DeRosa: And yeah, it’s pretty good. And then I guess I didn’t say it earlier, Hank, you kind of alluded to it earlier is aging Woodcock is phenomenal. I’m a firm believer that all meat should be aged. And in fact, if people don’t know any meat you buy in the supermarket is aged just for that reason because it tastes better. So I usually throw the Woodcock in my refrigerator for a few days with the guts in and then I’ll come back to them and work with them from there.
Hank Shaw: Yeah. I do the same thing. Even though you can’t pluck them earlier, there isn’t any point because they lose all their heat pretty quick because they’re not very big birds and as long as you keep them cool, which means the cooler when you get back to the truck and then the refrigerator for a few days. Now you can leave for seven days, I’ve done this on road trips where I’ve shot birds in Michigan and I don’t get home for seven, eight days later and they’re fine. As long as you keep them cold, cold, cold. They don’t have to be freezing, but if you’re going to do the traditional aging, like you would a pheasant, which is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I don’t know that Woodcock would handle it for more than three or four days without getting a little iffy.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah, that’s how I usually go about that three-day mark. We did it Matt. I think you were still working with us at Project Upland when we did that article with Chrissy Mason, right?
Matt Soberg: Yeah. Yep. And I [crosstalk 01:24:11]. Yes, you went into the history way, way back from England when they used to age Woodcock and then talked a little bit about it. I think she tried it as an experiment herself and that’s all in the article.
Hank Shaw: Yeah. Yeah. I did a lot of scientific work on… I read all the studies because there are actual real good meat science studies on aging game birds in the United Kingdom and in Australia, New Zealand where you can buy game. So because you can do that, there have been legit meat science stuff on it and the consensus that the papers came out was for all Upland birds, the sweet spot is 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit five days for pheasants and the people have hung them for longer. But when they do taste tests among regular normal humans, five days at 50 degrees is the optimal spot for pheasants. And they said between three and five days for smaller birds like partridges and Woodcock.
A.J. DeRosa: You Hank that is your expertise, I have no doubt that you can probably out-cook us on Woodcock any day of the week.
Hank Shaw: I also just want to add one little piece to the freezing bit because I don’t get a chance to hunt them very often because I’m 1500 to 2000 miles away from the nearest place where they live. I will freeze them. And if you vacuum seal them, you do have to take the feet off because the feet will break the vacuum seal. If you do vacuum seal them and they keep the seal, they will keep for two years in a freezer and it’ll be just fine. Now if they break seal because they’re oddly shaped, then you’ve got to cook them right away. You’re not going to fill your freezer with Woodcock, it’s just not going to happen. So it’s kind of a ceremonial deal where you’re going to have one or 10 great meals of this bird and then move on to whatever the next thing is.
A.J. DeRosa: Yes, I have yet to fill my freezer with Woodcock. Life of a grouse and Woodcock hunter and filling the freezer are not usually in the same sentence.
Hank Shaw: The closest I’ve ever heard of that is there are some guys from Wisconsin who really put the wood to ruffed grouse. Those guys will kill 60 ruffed grouse in a year.
A.J. DeRosa: Wow.
Hank Shaw: And they will eat… They’ll gorge themselves on ruffed grouse and then they’ll still have enough in the freezer. Wisconsin’s kind of the sleeper state so everybody talks about the Minnesota Northwoods or the UP or things like that and the problem with Minnesota or with Wisconsin is that virtually all of the really good grouse spots I think are either private or they’re closely guarded by people who will never tell you ever, ever, ever where they are. All right, guys, we have been going for an hour and a half. This may be the single longest episode of Hunt Gather Talk. Yeah.
Matt Soberg: Thank you.
Hank Shaw: So before we go, tell people where they can find you and where you are on social media or in your case, the Project Upland and Covey Rise magazine. So let’s start with Matt.
Matt Soberg: Yeah. My email is sobergm that’s S-O-B-E-R-G [email protected] Social media almost everywhere is @MattSolberg. And if you want to check out Covey Rise magazine, it’s just coveyrisemagazine.com. Pretty easy.
A.J. DeRosa: Yeah and projectupland.com is really the hub for my universe as the creative director over there. Same thing, just simple search on Instagram. We’re really active on Instagram. It’s probably the best way to interact with the brand. We do have our other brands like Endless Migration. We just launched another magazine called Hunting Dog Confidential, which is an international journey and even includes big game and all sorts of fun stuff. Craig Kaushik is actually the editor in chief of that. So yeah, projectupland.com is pretty much the hub of our universe or endlessmigrationhunt.com. And you can pretty much find your way to me through any of those routes.
Hank Shaw: Cool. I actually linked to Project Upland on virtually every episode of this podcast because you guys have great background articles on how to get started pursuing pretty much every one of the animals that I’ve covered in the season.
A.J. DeRosa: Except the Chachalaca.
Hank Shaw: Except the Chachalaca. But that could come.
A.J. DeRosa: We’re going to resolve that. We will resolve that. I don’t think we’re going to be doing a how to Chachalaca hunt unless you’re going to do that for us, but we’re at least going to do a species profile.
Hank Shaw: Now you got me going again because God, the fat on that bird is so amazing, but that is another story. Anyway, guys, thank you for being on the Hunt Gather Talk podcast, be safe in the woods, shoot straight and pluck your birds.
A.J. DeRosa: Thank you. Nice talking to you. Nice talking to you, Matt.
Matt Soberg: Yep. You too AJ. Thanks Hank.